The case of Lee Seok-ki and the Revolutionary Organization touches South Korea's relationship with North Korea, the internal perceptions of South Koreans about the North, and the subject of treason. Ultimately, however, it is a matter of conscience and mindfulness for an advanced nation.
There are at present and have been in the past many covert actions by North Korea that have aimed to embarrass, inconvenience, and even destabilize the South Korean government.
Despite the Korean Armistice Agreement, we must acknowledge that hostilities between the North and much of the rest of our world exist and are very much alive. It is a national, regional, and international security matter to say the least.
While the jury has not yet convened to hear the allegations against Lee, they do not appear to be a mere fabrication by the National Intelligence Service for propaganda or internal domestic purposes. It would be beyond foolish to fabricate the Lee scandal and would further tarnish the already dour public opinion regarding the NIS.
At any given moment, there are efforts worldwide by powers great and small, as well as by powers that are and are not governments, to destabilize, harm, and even end national governments.
There is no such thing as absolute security in the context of nation-states. Agents and agencies of covert actions are very active and busy in our age, perhaps disturbingly so. But this is not really anything new or different from ages past.
We also should look to the Tonghak Rebellion or the Jeju Uprising. While those events were not the same kinds of actions that Lee has been accused of plotting, Korean history contains various incidents of internal disagreement and underlying civil tension.
They have arisen from different ideological, partisan, intercultural and other streams of opinion, behavior, and organization. They have at times made a profound impact on Korean history and that of the world.
I don't think the Lee Seok-ki matter betokens an extreme level of internal division in South Korea or a profound historical moment. Support for the national government, for the U.S.-ROK alliance, and for the direction of South Korea's advancement remains strong and enduring.
My concern, and it is not meant as a justification for tolerating treason, is that many Koreans, perhaps most Koreans, in the South and likely in the North, long for an end to the division of the two nations but will be dissuaded by Lee through scapegoating.
Polls show that many South Koreans may not want to unify the North and South, let alone to pay for it, or that South Koreans would be better off without unification. In particular, younger South Koreans have less sense of the issue's importance. I am not sure we could believe any opinion polls in the North, but they likely would have some similarity ― at least public polls.
It certainly cost West Germans a great deal to unify with East Germany, and conditions after unification were not as easy as before. Such fundamental choices require a long-term perspective as to gains that are not favored by contemporary cultures.
I hope that South Koreans will not harbor dark thoughts about those in South Korea who are eager for reunification. It is and will remain a dream that awaits many other critical developments, chief among them a manifest change in North Korean leadership opinion and a better relationship between the United States and China, in my opinion.
In the meantime, while it is necessary that traitors be stopped, it is vital not to short-circuit the debate over how to pursue relations with the North. There is room for disagreement about conservative and progressive, pro- and anti-, more liberal and more cautious paths to relate with the North.
South Koreans and friends of both Koreas, indeed friends of world peace, should learn more about the Korean Institute of National Unification and its work to marshal constructive forces for the distant day when the two Koreas will again be one. Younger generations of Koreans and their children and grandchildren will continue to grapple with the unification issue.
I also hope that we view all persons accused of treason and crimes generally as innocent until proven guilty. The public should want those who investigate the claims and charges against Lee to be guided by a respect for truth and justice. In time, the public will know the evidence and information regarding this case.
Most of all, we should be wary of human tendencies to scapegoat dissenting opinions in the course of dealing with treason. All the efforts to stamp out or punish Lee and adherents of his party should not prevent disagreement about different constructive unification paths, even those differing from the Park government.
We who believe in freedom and self-determination should not become our own enemies by stifling constructive dissent. No one in South Korea should want to do that. Lee has been foiled, but the greater national matter at stake is South Korea's ongoing path to unification. Those of the post baby boom generations need our leadership to be mindful about this key to national security.
Bernard Rowan is assistant provost for curriculum and assessment, professor of political science and faculty athletics representative at Chicago State University, where he has served for 20 years.